Note: The author no longer covers Northwestern as a professional and is a season-ticket holder now writing from a fan's perspective.
A 68-64 home-court loss to Illinois State on Sunday night made it apparent that until players Collins has recruited get to Evanston, this year will look much like the previous torturous seasons the program has endured.
Just three games into the 2013-14 season and at least one epitaph has been written about Northwestern basketball, this one courtesy of Seth Gruen and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Is it really over? Is a torturous season of Northwestern basketball all but assured? That’s awfully hard to say, but for the bulk of Sunday’s loss to Illinois State, it was fairly torturous.
Redbirds center Reggie Lynch finished with 10 points in just 13 minutes of play. That obviously didn’t speak too well to Northwestern center Alex Olah’s interior defense, the weaknesses of which were put on display early. John Jones slipped past him for a layup on the first play of the game, and the 7-foot center was repeatedly unable to get position. Equally concerning, Lynch bulled the sophomore center around, frequently using a first push to get distance and then having his way with Olah. That’s not going to work in a conference noted for its physicality. Olah’s going to have to learn to push and shove a little bit. He can’t be sent stumbling backwards with every push.
The one piece of good news is redshirt senior Nikola Cerina brought a much more physical brand of ball to Welsh-Ryan Arena, thus earning 16 minutes to Olah’s 12. Cerina is unafraid to make first contact. At times, he’s perhaps a little too aggressive, such as when he made a Superman leap to the hoop only to be rebuffed by two Redbirds defenders, but he appeared to be a much more effective defender on Sunday.
Cerina’s positive play aside, it is worth worrying about how the Wildcats are going to cope with the post players of the Big Ten. Upon further review, Lynch is 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds. Michigan State’s Adreian Payne is that plus a few pounds. Same with Minnesota’s Elliott Eliason. And Michigan’s Mitch McGary. Northwestern didn’t fare well in one of its first tests against a solid post presence, which leads to fears of being pushed around all season long.
It has been a little discouraging watching Olah under-perform as a returning Big Ten starter. One could say the same of Dave Sobolewski, who began the night by missing two wide-open three pointers. The second appeared to miss the rim entirely, glancing off the bottom of the backboard. The sophomore is supposed to be a shooter, and yet he went 1-for-5 from behind the arc Sunday and is just 5-for-15 from the field this season. He also turned it over three times and has yet to prove he can drive to the hole the way Michael “Juice” Thompson once did. Safe to say the Wildcats will need Sobolewski to re-emerge as a perimeter threat. There's a lot of season for him to do so, and shooters can take time to warm up, but that's something to watch out for.
I also can’t figure out why JerShon Cobb takes half of the shots he takes. I mean, listen, the man creates offense, which is a vast improvement from most of his teammates, and give him credit, he made it to the free-throw line 14 times Sunday night, one more than the rest of his teammates combined. I’d just like to see him corral his off-balance outside shot a little bit more and focus on driving to the hoop, where he truly excels.
And while Cobb takes too many shots, I wish Drew Crawford would take more and wouldn’t fade into the wing so often. He’s an elite All-Big Ten player. I want him taking shots. Yet, after he missed a jumper with the Wildcats leading 8-3 with 14:37remaining in the first half, he went nearly eight minutes without a shot – a span in which Cobb took three. He spent one of those minutes on the bench, which means he spent seven minutes – during which his team was outscored 16-4 – without hoisting a shot. I love the way Crawford plays. He plays restrained. He takes good shots. He’s smart and he can drive with authority as the highlight reels captured. That’s why I hate to see him disappear for so long.
It wasn't all bad, of course. Northwestern cut an 18-point lead in half in 2:43, capped by a beautiful bit of dribbling on the fast break by Sobolewski. Kale Abrahamson hit two big three-pointers. Cobb also impressed with a tough layup to draw within 64-62 and a jumper to draw within 66-64 with six seconds to go. The Wildcats do have some playmakers. The disgust that filled the arena around 8:30 had largely faded by 9:30.
And to its credit, Illinois State didn’t look like a team that finished 18-15 last year and began this season with a blowout loss at VCU followed by an eight-point loss to Drexel. The Redbirds stuck out immediately as being very athletic, whether it was their quick drives to the hoop or Lynch deftly speeding around Olah for two reverse layups or the various rim-rattling dunks they pulled. That team has some scoring punch, but Northwestern’s going to face that all season long, and in that sense,Sunday night didn’t bode well.
In one last note, from my perch in Section 208, the fan breakdown in Welsh-Ryan Arena appeared to be roughly 50-50, but the noise level was more like 75-25 in favor of the Redbirds. Granted, many of Illinois State’s fans likely traveled a great distance to be at the game and thus are more likely to cheer loudly, and certainly, Sunday’s game probably was going to mean a whole lot more to them than it meant to Northwestern, regardless of the victor, but still for Welsh-Ryan to turn into a mini-Redbird Arena was a little embarrassing, no matter how much the Wildcats’ slow start might be to blame.
That's all for now. From Section 208, this is Jonah Rosenblum, signing off.